The trees at the research site appear, for the most part, stunningly healthy. Brush up against the bright-green needles and you'll release a dense cloud of pine pollen. A beetle-infested tree will continue to look green and healthy until the following growing season, when its needles turn into brittle, rust-colored strands and begin to drop — but most of these trees haven't been touched at all. It's an anomaly that Mitton and Ferrenberg managed to document the beetle's accelerated life cycle at a place that's seen little damage so far from the insect — particularly in comparison to the waves of red and gray trees on slopes just a few miles west, on the other side of the Continental Divide.

Still, there are casualties scattered conspicuously across the landscape: trees turning orange, bare-limbed skeleton trees riddled with beetle exit holes. Most of them are limber pines, which the beetle seems to favor here over the lodgepoles. Mitton pauses to examine signs of a recent invasion in a gnarled, eminent limber. There are telltale plugs of fresh resin oozing from several spots near the base of the tree, like wounds clotted with blood.

Mitton chips under the bark with his hatchet but fails to find any beetles. "There's no blue stain in there yet," he says. "I'm not certain if the beetle has been pitched out or if I just crushed her."

For now the limber seems to be holding its own. But the beetles will be back in force as the summer heats up. And the current epidemic threatens to have a far more long-lasting impact on some tree species than others — particularly the limber pine and other varieties of five-needle white pines that play a keystone role in high-altitude ecosystems.

The so-called High Five pines, including limber, whitebark, Rocky Mountain and Great Basin bristlecones, are stress-tolerant species that fare well in poor, rocky soils and harsh conditions, often at the edge of treeline on steep slopes. Generations of wind and cold can twist their limbs into exotic shapes, and they've been known to live for hundreds of years. (Bristlecones are among the oldest living organisms on the planet; one survivor in California has been core-dated as 4,842 years old.) For years, Mitton made regular pilgrimages to a favorite limber pine in Rocky Mountain National Park, more than a meter in diameter, that he estimated to be more than a thousand years old.

"I liked to take pictures of it," he says. "Two years ago, I went back and it was dead. There were beetle attacks all over it."

Despite or perhaps because of their venerable age, the slow-growing High Five pines have proven to be less resistant to beetle attacks than more common species; milder temperatures at high elevations have also allowed the beetles more freedom to operate. At the same time, the High Fives have had to contend with the creeping progress of white-pine blister rust, a fungal disease from Asia that kills trees slowly over years but for which there's no known treatment.

"This has been a one-two punch that's sending the Forest Service into high-gear problem-solving," says Diana Tomback, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Colorado Denver. "These trees are very important for high-elevation ecology."

Tomback started out as a student of avian ecology. Her research on the Clark's nutcracker, though, soon focused on its "co-evolved relationship" with the whitebark pine: The bird plunders the whitebark's cones for seeds and then caches them in thousands of sites, intending to retrieve them when food is scarce — but effectively planting new trees across the landscape. The whitebark helps protect watersheds and provides high-energy seeds for squirrels, bears and other animals; government studies indicate that grizzlies in Yellowstone end up in more deadly encounters with humans in years when the whitebark seeds are in short supply, as they have been in recent years.

Although limber and bristlecone pines in Colorado have also taken a hit, the fate of the whitebark, which grows farther north, is of particular concern to Tomback and other ecologists. Between the blister rust and the relentless march of the beetles, some areas in the northern Rockies are reporting a mortality rate among whitebark pines of 80 percent or more. Last year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials ruled that the whitebark is in danger of extinction and warrants endangered-species protection but said the agency doesn't have the resources to list the tree. Canada has already accorded the whitebark endangered status.

Tomback, who is also the volunteer director of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation, says blister rust has already wreaked havoc in much of the whitebark's range, and the beetles could finish off much of what's left. "Those few trees that are potentially resistant to this disease can be killed in one season by the pine beetle, which doesn't discriminate," she notes. "It's a bad problem that we don't think nature can overcome."

In Yellowstone and other hot spots, state and federal officials are scrambling to combat the possibility of extirpation — local extinction — of the whitebark pine. They're collecting seeds to try to develop blister-rust-resistant trees, then pondering how to protect those trees from beetles. Annual spraying can protect individual trees but is too costly, financially and environmentally, for widespread use. Another limited protective measure involves placing packets of chemicals on certain trees that mimic an anti-aggregation pheromone the beetles issue when they've taken up residence and want to keep other beetles from invading the host — a kind of "no vacancy" sign.

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21 comments
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Leola

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Henderson
Henderson

Please read the article in full. Your comment is off the mark

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Leola

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Now   Pow
Now Pow

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Leola

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Gielsj
Gielsj

This isn't the only study on these, and it has been shown that winters are not cold enough to kill off these bugs

Anthony Beretta
Anthony Beretta

Unless the tree is dead that it can freeze easily. I've seen DEAD wood freeze yearly in the mountains of northern new mexico. So that's why I don't think temperature has a lot to do with this problem.

Bobbert
Bobbert

Nice fixation, Ranger. Lack of forest diversity? Somewhat. Lack of water? Definitely. Longer warm season? Yes. That's what I took from the experts. And experts in Entomology/Forestry are going to be as excited about their subject going up in a mainstream paper as you suggest I am about it. So, I'm not sure which of the indifferent, "who cares" comments you see coming from an expert, or anyone with a degree in this stuff.

Swampfoxcws
Swampfoxcws

So....errr...I suppose the fact that we have not allowed a fire-dependent forest to burn for a hundred years had nothing to do with it? And this climate change thing - what is the climate supposed to be doing? Staying the same? Getting colder? What? We are generally coming out of an ice age, so it is not astounding to me that the climate is getting warmer. Al Gore is making a lot of money on this deal, with his carbon footprint of a thousand city people!

Bob
Bob

Holy long-winded crapology.

Bobbert
Bobbert

Grower: I am absolutely positive that there are other researchers looking for generations of the insects of their choice. I don't doubt that every insect is a major concern of yours as a grower. However, its BS suggesting there is no story (as Phd and others suggested) in the fact that pine beetles have been observed flying for the FIRST time in the Colorado high country in May during a drought which has weakened tree defenses, setting this whole situation up as a potential epidemic...that's a story I am glad is being reported. Regardless of what the other insects are up to. Westword runs gossip pieces and bullshit blogs constantly and no one comments. But here we get a long story that hasn't been regurgitated a billion times, and people are dissing the fact that it was even reported because a small part of the story doesn't jive with their opinion on the narrowest little subject that they know anything about. I stand by my fucking point.

JB
JB

I remember as a kid seeing all the beetle kill trees that were cut down, sprayed, and wrapped in plastic to control their spreading. You could see them on the way up the canyon to Central city on the mountainsides. If this has stopped, the question should be WHY??????

Oliver Philip
Oliver Philip

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Grower
Grower

Ask any farmer and they will agree warm winters increase the yearly chances for multi generations of insects. Are you on the peer review for this article? They plan for this. I agree this is common knowledge. Further, if I planted the same corp every year during an increase of annual multi generation, or single generation, of damaging insects I would be out of business. The lack of forest diversity is the cause and the effect. Climate fluctuations ehances lack of forethought in forest management - the real cause. Examing different type of insects and multi generations of seasonal hatching proves that pine beetles are not exclusive and climate fluctuation increases are in fact common knowledge. Defending someone's thesis, in this case, proves your lack of understanding the "whole fucking point."

James Reynolds
James Reynolds

Dead fuel accumulating for the past 15+ years. Fires take off like hot cakes. You do the science.

Bobbert
Bobbert

Phd: Early beetle flights resulting in 2 generations per year, instead of 1 is not common knowledge. In fact, it goes against everything we know and accept about the pine beetle. The fact that they can lure a pine beetle with pheromones in May is proof enough. Larvae cannot be lured through the air by pheromones, and pine beetle eggs will not spontaneously grow wings in "cold winter" to be drawn to a trap. The whole fucking point is that weather changes are now allowing 2 generations per year instead of 1. You want to see this test run during the egg stage? Do you see insects cruising around when the weather is cold? Do you really think that beetles trapped using pheromones in May are less developed than the one they happened upon on Niwot Ridge in May? And what would running the experiment with "other beetle types" look like and what would it have to do with proving or disproving the fact that pine beetles are squeezing out 2 generations where they used to make 1?

Nroush
Nroush

Good article about the pine beetle devestation, however the title is misleading. The subtitle additionally says why the forests ate burning up, like there is a correlation between the beetle and all of the current fires. There is only a few sentences that talk about the fires and it never mentions a correlation between the two problems. False advertisement!

Phd
Phd

The article is an example of lacking journalism filled with a lack of citations and filled with conjecture. Worse, the article is stale information. The beetle kill is common knowledge and the simple method of "They set up lures loaded with pheromones to invite beetles to establish broods in those trees." Then stating warm winter sampling represents the first peer-reviewed report of the insect achieving two generations in a single summer. Show this result without luring beetles with pheromones. Then try the same experiment with pine bettles during a cold winter. And finally try the experiment with other beetle types.

Edmund
Edmund

Yea, you're right. He should have written it as "The top ten things you didn't know about pine beetles!" Or maybe 5 in your case.

Ranger
Ranger

Single season multi generations during an upswing in warm winters gets you excited? Read closely, and I see your comment about jerking off - that polishes your stance. Plain, simple, concise and without argument - it’s lack of forest diversity. Now you can once again start your multi seasonal pseudo physical and biased masturbation and please stop writing comments where you have no expertise or degree. Grower, thank you.

 
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